The Texas Supreme Court has denied a motion for a rehearing by the Fort Bend Herald in a case the newspaper brought against Fort Bend County in 2014 to recover attorney’s fees over obtaining public information.
The Herald made a routine Public Information Act request for the names of two people who filed a criminal complaint against former Lamar school district contractor Jim Gonzales, but the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department refused to provide the information despite well-established legal precedents.
After the Herald sued the county, the sheriff’s department reversed course and identified the complainants (LCISD board members Tyson Harrell and James Steenbergen) prior to a district court hearing.
As prescribed by law when a plaintiff “substantially prevails,” the Herald won a motion in district court to be reimbursed its attorney’s fees. But the county appealed and prevailed in the Houston-based First Court of Appeals.
The Herald then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which sided with the county.
“We’re disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling because it flies in the face of common sense,” said Bill Hartman, chairman of the Herald. “It’s hard to see any connection between the court’s ruling and the intent of the Legislature.
“If a governmental entity puts up a road block and forces citizens to file a lawsuit to obtain what is clearly public information, they now can’t recover their attorney’s fees as long as the government official turns over the requested information before the judge signs an order.
“And the governmental entity has no accountability and suffers no consequence.”
Hartman added when local governments delay the release of public information, it flies in the face of the law and adversely affects the ability of all citizens who have the right to know.
Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes Jr. said the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld the county’s conviction that it turned over the information on a timely basis.
He said the newspaper’s Freedom of Information request specifically sought the names of the individuals that filed the complaint with the sheriff’s office, and because of that narrow request for information the county was able to furnish the names to the newspaper within six days, “which rendered the newspaper’s lawsuit moot.”
Cordes said members of the public who seek information through the Texas Open Records Act and are denied the information may appeal the decision.
“There is a procedure set out in the (Texas Open Records Act) statute that allows a citizen to file a complaint with an agency or with the Texas Attorney General — a written complaint they can file — if they believe the governmental agency is not complying with or is in violation of the Open Records statute.”